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Before the holiday weekend, Facebook decided to 'go loud' with an alert: wear a mask.

Misinformation experts said that they were encouraged by the announcement and wondered why the company hadn’t done it sooner.
Image: Cellphone mask user
A person wearing a protective mask looks at a mobile phone in San Francisco on May 14, 2020.David Paul Morris / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Facebook and Instagram are wading into the U.S. debate over face masks with a clear message: you should wear them.

Facebook, which owns Instagram, said Thursday that it would begin putting an alert at the top of the feed in the two social media apps to remind people to wear face coverings as the number of coronavirus cases climbs in the U.S.

“When in public, cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face covering,” the alert will say, according to screenshots posted by the company on a blog.

The new feature puts Facebook on the side of doctors and public health experts in a debate over masks that has raged for weeks across the country, from local government meetings to inside the White House. It also adds to the platform's proactive efforts to push authoritative coronavirus information to users.

Masks help reduce the spread of the coronavirus, according to experts who point to recent studies and evidence from other countries showing that even simple cloth masks have some effect.

Tech companies haven’t always been as prominent in promoting mask usage, somewhat in contrast to their aggressive push in the early days of the pandemic in March and April when they promoted measures like staying at home.

Experts in how false medical advice spreads online said that they were encouraged by the announcement from Facebook and wondered why the company hadn’t done it sooner.

“In July, for them to take that stance, it seems late for me,” said Whitney Phillips, a Syracuse University communication professor who studies social media.

“It would have been really helpful to have laid out that position as we were reopening,” she said. “Instead, our discussion about masks became a discussion about freedom rather than about the epidemiological benefit.”

Image: Facebook Instagram mask promotion
Examples of Facebook Instagram mask promotion.Courtesy Facebook/Instagram

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began urging Americans to wear cloth face coverings in public on April 2. It says everyone should wear a cloth face cover in public settings.

But masks have proved politically divisive, at least until this week. More Republican lawmakers have urged people to wear them, and on Wednesday, President Donald Trump gave a strong endorsement after having generally refused to wear a mask in public settings. Texas imposed a mask requirement Thursday.

Facebook said its decision to promote masks had nothing to do with the president’s newly enthusiastic appreciation for them.

“This decision is based on public health and messaging coming from our partners. Like everyone else we’re concerned about the recent uptick in cases and thought this was an especially important message to go loud with heading into the holiday weekend,” Facebook said in an emailed statement.

And the company said that, it has been promoting masks since early May via a page devoted to information about COVID-19. Facebook said it also takes down some posts that contradict official medical advice, including about masks.

The alerts in the news feeds started Thursday in the U.S. in both English and Spanish and would expand to more countries soon, the company said.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had taken a personal position in favor of wearing masks prior to the company’s announcement. On Tuesday, he posted a photo on his Facebook timeline of him and his wife Priscilla Chan wearing masks with the caption, “Please wear a mask. Covid is spreading quickly again and masks help keep people healthy and keep the country open.”

It was not immediately clear if other social media apps would feel pressure to follow suit with such a prominent message, but many companies have taken steps during the pandemic to push authoritative public health information.

Twitter, like Facebook, said it has required users to take down some posts from its network with false or unproven claims about masks. One such post was from a Florida congressional candidate on June 23 alleging without evidence that “excessive use of face masks causes fungal and bacterial pneumonia.”

In other cases of misleading mask information, Twitter said it may leave a tweet up but add a link directing people to authoritative information.

On Thursday, Twitter tried to coax people to wear masks by dangling the prospect of an often-requested feature as an incentive. “You can have an edit button when everyone wears a mask,” the company tweeted from a corporate account.

Snapchat this week added a selfie lens that detects when someone is wearing a face covering and allows them to accessorize it. If they are bare-faced, the feature displays a message: “PUT ON A FACE MASK.”

The company said it had other mask-related content, as well, including a public service announcement from the World Health Organization scheduled to run this weekend.

Snapchat said in a statement it wants “to do our part to help normalize the wearing of face masks, based on the guidance of public health officials.”

Google has modified the results of its search engine to prominently display information from the CDC and other medical authorities when people try certain search queries about masks. The company said Thursday it continues to have information on YouTube and Google directing to CDC guidelines, which include wearing masks. It didn’t say whether it was considering doing something more that would be specific to masks.

On Reddit, the homepage links to the CDC’s website and to the r/coronavirus message board, which has become a destination for authoritative discussions and information.

Kellie Owens, a health information researcher at the nonprofit Data & Society, said that tech companies, like everyone else, heard inconsistent statements early in the pandemic from medical authorities about masks. Back then, some experts advised against buying or wearing masks, warning that people might put them on wrong or sap the supply of personal protective equipment needed for hospital workers.

Coronavirus volunteers making masks by hand were even caught in the crossfire when Facebook took down some of their online posts, The New York Times reported in April.

“The real failure of public health messaging on masks seems to play a larger role here in confusing tech companies about what the right response is,” Owens said.